Summer Reading

This year's best books for summer reading include novels -- genre and literary -- essays, reissues, and a collection of film reviews. All, however, prove that what many may regard as mere entertainment can be informative as well.

For instance, a writer such as James Dickey can provide both, and his essays about poetry are as engrossing as any of the thrillers on the list. Conversely, good genre fiction may suffer from labels such as ''science fiction'' or ''spy novel,'' but good writing of intelligence and literary merit may be found in any category of fiction.

Some of the following books, like a vacation, take the reader to different and unsuspected places; others are titles that went quietly out of print but have now, silently, returned to life:

Leaving the Land, by Douglas Unger. New York: Harper & Row. 276 pp. $12.45.

One of the best first novels I have read this year, Mr. Unger's book concerns women and men living rural lives between the two world wars. It avoids sentiment and tragedy but provides a deeper understanding of middle America through its focus on everyday life. ''Leaving the Land'' depicts a family torn apart by war and tested by the unpredictability of a harsh land. Marge Hogan, one of the novel's main characters, is a unique creation from which some novelists could learn. The story is imaginatively told through alternating points of view, and Unger writes skillfully about generations of people shaped by the world of farming in the Dakotas.

Blackboard Jungle, by Evan Hunter. Dakotas. New York: Arbor House (Library of Contemporary Americana). 309 pp. $8.95.

If you avoid the introduction by Stephen King, you will find Hunter's novel to be a professionally written account of a teacher working in a vocational school during the 1950s. With the realism of tabloid headlines, the book evokes the bitterness of students, cynicism of teachers, and the hope and confusion of any school system unequipped to understand the lives of its students. Hunter foreshadowed, better than we realized, some of the conditions of present-day urban life, and the novel is as relevant now as when it was first published in 1954. The book is better than the movie that was made from it, although both are worth revisiting.

The End of My Life, by Vance Bourjaily. New York: Arbor House (Library of Contemporary Americana) 278 pp. $7.95.

A bitter novel of a cynical youth going into World War II, ''End of My Life '' has as much to say about wartime existence as about the failure of intellectuals during the '30s and '40s to cope with the war. The protagonist, Skinner Galt, unlike his Vietnam war antecedents, regards war as a reflection of a larger, fundamental meaninglessness, which can't be resolved by politics or protest. ''You can,'' he says, ''only mourn.'' Bourjaily's book is more focused than Mailer's ''Naked and the Dead,'' but, like John Horne Burns's ''The Gallery ,'' it is one of our most important novels about the war.

Sorties and Self Interviews, by James Dickey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 226 pp., $7.95. And 190 pp., $6.95.

Poet and novelist James Dickey writes better prose than do most poets, and his essays enable the nonpoet to better understand the craft and intent of poetry. In these books Dickey shares with the reader his notes for an unpublished novel and his comments on poets and other writers. Both books are entertaining and deal with the often unnecessary gap between poetry and prose, and the writer and the audience.

Five Little Rich Girls, by Lawrence Block. London: Allison and Busby (distributed in the United States by Schocken Books, New York). 144 pp. $7.95.

Although the narrator is 17 years old, this is not a young-adult novel, but a fast-moving and amusing puzzle about the murders of several sisters. Clues are given, and so is a picturesque atmosphere. Trivia buffs will enjoy the information about great detectives and their cases.

Process of Elimination, by George Baxt. New York: St. Martin's Press. 292 pp.

The children of an eccentric millionaire are being killed off one by one in this mystery that, for its sophisticated humor, Oscar Wilde would appreciate. George Baxt has created a memorable suspense with offbeat characters and literary novelty.

A Spy in Winter, by Michael Hastings. New York: Macmillan. 264 pp. $14.95.

The title says it all: A defected spy must cope with his guilt and betrayal after his appearance on a British television show triggers new violence related to past corruption. Better and more direct than LeCarre, Hastings provides impressive detail and thoughtful observation about the intelligence business.

Lady Washington, by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. New York: Doubleday & Co. 376 pp.

Martha Washington had a life of her own that was every bit as interesting as the career of her husband George. Ms. Wilson sketches that life in a record of her heroine's childhood, marriages, and adulthood. The reader learns about early America, life on the plantation, and the running of a large household which resembled a corporation. Events covered include Martha's loss of her parents and children, her own illness, the Revolutionary War, and subsequent emergence of her country after independence. A moving portrait of a woman usually remembered as a figure in a painting.

Stand Proud, by Elmer Kelton. New York: Doubleday & Co. 279 pp. $14.95.

What's remarkable about this novel is the seriousness with which Kelton writes about the Old West, without apology for the values of its people. Some readers may be uneasy about his frank handling of white-native American relationships in a land which no longer belongs to its first settlers. An impressive novel.

The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke New York: Berkeley (Masterworks of Science Fiction). 302 pp. $6.95.

These stories explore alien cultures (sometimes without aliens) through artifacts that are found by humans. Illustrations complement the text without distracting from it, and the same could be said for the author's comments. Clarke deserves a serious readership as well as a popular one.

The Penultimate Truth, by Philip K. Dick. New York: Bluejay (distributed by St. Martin's Press, New York). 201 pp. $5.95.

Dick's novels dramatically portray the same themes as George Orwell's, e.g., chronic but unnecessary war, the uses of artificial (android) intelligence. Dick brings to his subjects a profound, if paranoid, intellect that challenges readers seeking escape literature. Where Orwell was political, Dick is philosophical.

Cast a Cold Eye, by Alan Ryan. Niles, Il.: Dark Harvest (PO Box 48134, 60648- 0134) 238 pp. $18.; and Too Long a Sacrifice, by Mildred DowneyBroxon. New York: Bluejay (distributed by St. Martin's Press). 224 pp. $7.95.

Both novels are set in Ireland, and both concern the supernatural. ''Cast a Cold Eye'' is lyric and pastoral, a fantasy ghost story that which combines terror with adventure. Downey's novel, however, depicts a Belfast of legend, tragedy, and war. The language in both books is lovely and invites careful reading.

Machines That Think, edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 627 pp. $22.95.

Good collections of science fiction may be as effective as essays in examining technology in our lives. Here the stories range in style and tone from the early efforts of Ambrose Bierce to the influential fiction of Dr. Asimov. All are profoundly stimulating and entertaining.

Films of the Seventies: A Filmography of American, British and Canadian Films 1970-1979, by Marc Sigoloff. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. (PO Box 611, 28640 ) 424 pp. $29.95.

Sigoloff's collection may be opinionated and at odds with the opinions of earlier film critics, but it suggests that we should reassess many of these now-overlooked films. His informative listings include the names of cast, director, and source materials. They are useful as a guide to cable and cassettes, and they provide enjoyable reading.

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